Monday, June 27, 2016

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

Sometimes, you encounter a book, at it is just not the right time for you two to become acquainted. You put it on the shelf and just wait for that moment.

Such was my experience with Jesmyn Ward's work, Salvage the Bones. I first started the book in 2013 and for some reason, could not connect with the story. It wasn't time, until June 2016 when she called my name and asked to be recognized.

This is the most lyrical, descriptive, imaginative, and visual language I have encountered in a very long time.  The story encapsulated in these twelve days leading up to Hurricane Katrina left me as spent as if I were racing aganst rain to secure myself and my belongings while dealing with the uncertainty of poverty, place, and purpose.

The young protagonist, Esch, is the only girl and up until nine years ago, the  youngest child of this Mississippi Gulf Coast family. Their homestead sitting on land inherited from her mother's family, this young girl is left to help mother her younger brother who lived after their mother died giving birth. She is left to navigate the rural south, modern day oppression, her father's grief, her brother's obsession with China, the dog that was supposed to fight for their freedom, and the confusing message of her female-ness being the only thing of value.

Jesmyn invites us to examine family and what they do for each other, to examine respectability or lack thereof, abject poverty, gender, sex, male bravado, and neglect against the backdrop of a category 5 life altering event that shatters everything they thought they knew.

Set in fictional Bois Sauvage in the tiny eye of the Gulf Coast, this is mirrored after the author's own hometown, DeLisle, Mississippi. The neighboring town in still-segregated Mississippi,  St. Catherine is the beach town that even with the pristine front and only-money-and-whiteness existence, succumbed to the ravages of a storm that demanded attention. She demands that we examine race from a different perspective, told in the first person of a fourteen year old girl trying to figure out what to do with the life-altering event taking place within her soul.

I found myself hopeful and despairing, engaged and challenged, ultimately, satisfied that though the storm tore up more than New Orleans, Katrina shifted the balance for things to come for the Batiste family.

One note to younger readers, this story is on the Honors English list for the local high school for its lovely story, exquisite writing, and coming-of-age narrative, however, it is quite descriptive of some things that may be challenging for those younger-than-high-school. 

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

The Hairdresser of Harare by Tendai Huchu

The cover is the first thing that attracted me to this tender story. I loved her silhouette and as a woman with a loudly proud fro, this make me smile. The pink afro-pick and then upon closer inspection, the things that actually made up the swirls and loops of her hair, I just had to read this book.

Set in modern Zimbabwe, written by a native son, this tale is told in a very African way. There are comical moments hiding the deepest emotions.

I settled in to take my time with the story, in a mere 189 pages, this young man managed to touch on a lot of issues that are very much in discussion today.

Vimbai, the young protagonist, is like a lot of millennials, trying to make her way in the big city. She is an expert hairdresser and as that is a primarily customer-service-driven profession, determined to not let anyone encroach on her budding business. She tangles with the fellow salon chairs, including the owner's daughter and the owner's persistent quest to be profitable.  It was in this that the story takes a turn that I did not expect.

Dumisani seems like the chiseled dream, imagined in my mind's eye like a very dark, very handsome, very charasmatic actor. He breezed into their lives and ultimately turned around what Vimbai knew of herself as a woman.

Woven, like a thousand different threads, it is not until a little over half-way through the book that we discover the real tale, the illusion that threatened to shatter all her dreams and the turmoil that living an inauthentic life spells.

There were times in my reading that I was mesmerized by the lyrical poetry and turn of phrases of the author employed. He wrote about whiteness as an illusion and the invasion of western styled products and images as anything to strip them of their "Africanness." It had moments of 1992-1994 political African interspersed with the universal quest to be, belong, and believe in someone.

Secrets are hinted at, customs are shared and adhered to, and the pages keep turning with that underlying gut feeling that something big was about to happen. Political intrigue, government coup, power, wealth, influence are all minor characters of a tale that is as important now as it was hinted at in the height of the identity movement.

Inheritance, misogany, and of course, traditional patriarchy threaten to overshadow Vimbai and her daughter. Taking twists and turns, we come to the questions of what can a woman have for herself, when can she speak up, and what about the men that betray her heart? To whom is she to be loyal and how many secrets to protect someone must she keep? Is the shame her's or does it belong to the one who defies custom to do something that was still not accepted in African cultures?

Many questions and a final pronouncement leave the reader with acknowledgement that the issues of sexual orientation and relationship continue to be discussed in parts of the world. That women on the other end of a man's hidden life are often left with the emotional damage of their secret, shamed by patriarchy and cultural demands. Had she made the life altering decision to marry, she would have been trapped in an intimately loveless life while he was trapped in a secret shame that almost cost him his life.

This novel draws in the reader with a deceptively simple story of a woman making her way in a modern African country, creating itself anew without British colonial influence. It is not until one is deep into his beautiful writing that the social commentary emerges and brought out the stickynotes and pens for this reviewer. I paused multiple times, while this was published a few years ago, the issues are even more relevant today. As society norms shift, in the United States, among AfricanAmericans and increasingly, African peoples, the issue of those left behind continues to resonate.

The Hairdresser of Harare is a love story, but not just a love story. It is a social commentary, but not just that. It is an African story, but not just that. It is a combination of all that makes us human and the emotional wrestling that is universal.

This debut work by a  young African writer has garnered him a place among the Afro Diaspora writers who include social commentary with a modern twist.  Visit him for his latest work.

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